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Progressive education has destroyed our school; writing alphabet makes young children expert readers

Catherine K. Flynn,
Founder, Principal, Teacher,The Glacier Waldorf School,
Kalispell, Montana
Catherine K. Flynn, Founder, Principal, Teacher,The Glacier Waldorf School, Kalispell, Montana
The Glacier Waldorf School

Bob Rose, MD, after reading one of my articles sent me the comments below. Dr. Rose titled it Progressive Education has destroyed our schools. I added the subtitle Writing the alphabet makes young children spontaneous readers in that it seems to better identify the issue. Dr. Rose also included at the end of his message the comments of Patrick Groff, Professor of Education Emeritus at San Diego State University.

Since I am not an expert in this field, I asked some one who is. So at the end of Professor Groff's comment I include the response of Catherine K. Flynn, founder, principal and teacher at the Glacier Waldorf School in Montana.

Dr. Rose wrote on May 12, 2010:

I started a yahoo groups listserv and recruiting a number of "whole language" teachers to help test Maria Montessori's 1912 postulate that making young children "expert" at writing the alphabet would make them "spontaneous" readers.

During the school year of 2002-2003 I started a yahoo groups listserv and recruiting a number of "whole language" teachers to help test Maria Montessori's 1912 postulate that making young children "expert" at writing the alphabet would make them "spontaneous" readers.

To my delight, there turned out to be a very strong correlation between how many letters of the alphabet first-graders could write in a timed, 20-second period of time and how good their reading skills were. To my delight, there was a very strong correlation. However, the Whole Language Teachers did not believe in "setting specific achievement goals", and I was asked to unsubscribe from the list.

During the following school year (2003-2004) I created my own yahoo groups listserv and recruited another group of five kindergarten teachers willing to submit correlation data between alphabet-letter writing fluency and reading skills. Children were identified by ID numbers, rather than by names, to keep the study ethical.

There had been 94 students in the Whole Language "control" group, and I got a total of 106 student correlations from the five "experimental" kindergarten teachers, all of whom had also gotten very strong correlations between writing fluency and reading skill.

I immediately emailed the editorial offices of over a dozen well-known education journals, asking if they would be interested in me submitting a write-up of our study for possible publication. I got only two responses: one said, "That couldn't possibly be true", but the editor of the Harvard Educational Review enthusiastically invited my submission. I wrote up our study and had it sent in three days later. (In March, 2004). A few months later I received a standard letter of rejection from them.

Since then I have emailed copies of "my manuscript" to HUNDREDS of educational psychologists, journalists, education professors, politicians and school superintendents. Though I received a few informal polite replies, no one seemed to take my idea seriously.

During the second half of the 2008-2009 school year I recruited a number of different kindergarten and first-grade teachers to my listserv. All who participated again saw positive correlations, but it was decided to wait until this present (2009-2010) school year to repeat the study and see if we could get enough data to publish a meaningful meta-analysis onto the internet.

So far (5/5/10) we have data from three first-grade teachers at a Catholic private school in an upper middle-class Midwestern city. The data from these three teachers involve a total of 60 first-graders. Not only is there a correlation between alphabet-writing fluency and literacy, BUT EVERY ONE OF THESE CHILDREN IS NOW ABLE TO READ. (We got baseline data last year from a first-grade in one of the most affluent and academically successful elementary schools in the state of Pennsylvania. NOT ALL of their first graders were readers, though there was indeed a correlation between writing fluency and reading skill.)

At this Catholic school teacher #1 wrote she had the children practice writing the alphabet three days a week. (We had recommended five minutes each school day). Her class's writing fluency rates ranged between 63 and 123 letters-per-minute (LPM), and her median student wrote at a rate of 72 LPM. Teacher #2's median rate was 75 LPM, and the median rate for teacher #3 was 84 LPM.

A kindergarten teacher in our study wishes to be identified as "Mary Jane from rural South Carolina". She tells us that 93% of the children in her school receive subsidized lunches, and as of early May, 2010, only two of the children in her kindergarten are not yet readers. The principal of a highly successful elementary school in Atlanta had once told me on the telephone that children should learn to read in kindergarten, not in the first-grade.

Some years ago the retired archivist of the Calvert School (a private elementary school in Baltimore, Maryland), sent me a copy of a privately published booklet published in 1996, the centennial of the founding of the school. The original headmaster, G.Vernon Hillyer, wrote that, "If you teach children to write, you needn't bother teaching them to read". In his first-grade (the school had no kindergarten), children simply learned to write the sentence, "I see a tree". Thereafter they learned to write, "The tree is green". After about three months, all the children were literate, and then began to study a formal curriculum and to write meaningful essays. Twenty years later, he wrote that the school had never failed to teach a normal child to read and write.

In traditional Russia, children were taught literacy at home, before they began school. In Russian, as in English, various letters are pronounced differently in normal colloquial speech than they are written. As a matter of fact, there is no word for "to spell" in Russian. Instead, if one wishes to ask how a word is written, one just asks, "How is that written by syllables". For example, the word "govorit" (he speaks) is colloquially pronounced "guvareet". When asked how it is written, one answers: "Goh-Voh-REET".

In other words, one basically doesn't learn to read in Russian, one learns simply to write. And anyone can read anything anyone can successfully write! (I studied Russian for three years in college, and this way of learning to write in Russia is confirmed by several people educated in Russia whom I have known in the past.

Ardis, a kindergarten teacher in Macomb County, MI. just north of Detroit has told us her school has a high number of the children of immigrants in her class of 26. She included two interesting remarks in her report. One is "I have to admit I haven't kept up with the fluency training during this second semester as much as I did last year." The other important comment is "Every single person [i.e., kindergartner} is a reader - there are no struggling or non-readers this year".

Four students wrote the alphabet more rapidly than 40 LPM. There reading levels were, respectively, high, average, high and high. Eight students wrote at between 30 and 39 LPM. In descending LPM order, their reading levels were high, high, high, high, very high (3rd grade level), low average, low average and average.

Eleven students scored between 21 and 27 LPM. Again, in decreasing order of LPM, their reading levels were: medium, high, high, low average, low average, medium, average, low average, high, very very high [3rd grade level; autistic], (this student's LPM was 21) and average. Two students scored only 18 LPM. Their reading levels were high and low average.

Nancy, an Ed.D kindergarten teacher, also from Macomb County and part of metropolitan Detroit, just provided us with the following data:

Two of our 26 students scored better than 40 LPM and both rated as "above grade level" in reading skill. Two students scored 39 LPM, and that are also "above grade level". Five students scored between 30 and 36 LPM. In decreasing order of LPM rates, they were rated
"above grade level", "below grade level", "above grade level", "above grade level" and "at grade level" respectively.

Eight students wrote at between 21 and 27 LPM. Each of these eight were rated as "at grade level", in my opinion of their reading ability. Five students wrote at 15 LPM. Of these, one was "at grade level" and the other four were "below grade level". In the fall of 2009 the average LPM rate in my class was 7 LPM. At present it is 28 LPM.

Historically, many authorities on the subject of literacy instruction have stressed the importance of adequate practice in printing alphabet letters. The first-century Roman writer and rhetorician, Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (ca A.D. 35-98?) wrote that with regard to becoming literate, “Too slow a hand impedes the mind".

In 1912, Maria Montessori wrote that teaching young children to print letters is easy; that it is easy to teach children to read after they have practiced printing alphabet letters, but that it is difficult to teach children to read if they have not practiced writing them.

Marilyn Jager Adams noted that prior to the onset of the twentieth century the “spelling drill” was the principal means of inducing literacy for several millennia. I believe that the cumulative suggestion of our repeated on-line meta-analyses supports the idea that making children fluent at writing the alphabet during the first two years of school will be an important advance in the teaching of literacy throughout the world. We hope this summary will be relayed to K-1 teachers everywhere via the internet.

I think the importance of our findings is not in the strength of this on-line research. To be scientifically valid, studies must not only be reproducible, but reproducible by different experimenters.

The most outstanding result of our research is having learned that no one, in spite of vast sums being spent on "literacy research", has ever done and published a study to see if Maria Montessori's postulate holds true for Anglophone children, or whether it does not!

Bob Rose, MD (retired)
Jasper, Georgia

Dr. Rose then included comments he received from Patrick Groff, Professor of Education Emeritus at San Diego State University

Dear Dr. Rose:

I was pleased to see your revelation of the fact that most young children in the U.S. are denied an effective manner in which to develop their reading abilities. This practice is so notorious that I call it a form of academic child abuse.

Your comments also lead me to the conclusion that the public needs to be informed that professors of reading education are the major cause of the failure of American children to read competently. I hope in the future that you will add that truism to your other pertinent remarks.

Patrick Groff

Catherine K. Flynn is founder, principal and third grade teacher at the Glacier Waldorf School in Montana, which is one of nearly 1000 Waldorf Schools located in 60 countries around the world. After World War I, with Germany in shambles including it's education system, The owner of the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory in Stuttgart asked Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner is create a school and curriculum for the children of his employees. Steiner said he would on one condition and that was they follow his exact instructions and never change them. All Waldorf Schools since then have had to agree to the same conditions in order to get and keep a Waldorf charter.

Mrs. Flynn wrote:

It is always difficult for me to offer a short answer or response when it come to Waldorf.

Well, it still comes back to the question: why do people think children learning to read/write at younger and younger ages is so important? There are not any, for which I am aware. There are no correlations between learning to read/write at a younger age and greater success, not to mention happiness, in life/education later. And if a child is not developmentally ready and then "forced" through repetitive exercises, whether writing or reading, they simply get turned off/burned out.

I am not a brain expert, so I can only relate what I have read and studied, and my own classroom experience. Brain development is so complex, but it seems that research continues to support Piaget's child development work of long ago. That means during the first 7 years of life, the brain asks for 1) lots of nurturing from the primary caregiver, 2) a worthy role model to imitate, and 3) lots of movement as their body grows so rapidly during these years.

The acquisition of language is oral - through listening. Having language spoken around them in grammatically correct, clear speech, using rich vocabulary allows the brain to develop rich language and comprehension skills. That is why stories, written in beautiful rich language, are TOLD to children in Waldorf schools. Yes, reading to your child is absolutely a great thing. I read and still read everyday to my son, but having stories told as well only enhances their brain development in the area of vocabulary.

Forming pictures in their minds while listening to the story (a picture book gives them the pictures) aids comprehension. Of course stories read or told using excellent speech is just as important. Children at this stage learn through imitation, so readers/tellers need excellent, clear speech (speech classes are a very large part of my Waldorf teacher training). Carefully selecting appropriate stories is important.

Learning to write and read is "wrestling" with the abstract symbols of language. Abstract thinking, logic, reasoning, is the realm of adolescence. That is why Steiner said that reading is ideally left until the child is 11! I believe I read somewhere that Einstein did not read until 11. He was too busy allowing his hugely imaginative, creative mind to fully develop.

However, Steiner knew practically this would not work in our culture and so developed his method, which I describe below, to help with this transition period between age 7 and 11. Just because a younger and younger child is taught to recognize symbols in a correct order doesn't necessarily mean they are acquiring comprehension. It is certainly not feeding that picture-forming (creativity, imaginative) part of the brain that is so hungry during this time.

There are studies that have shown that when a child is "forced" to learn abstract symbols of reading/writing before the part of their brain for learning such things is not yet "firing," then another part of the child's brain not intended for reading/writing is forced to take up this work. The result is that this part of the brain gets re-wired for something it wasn't really meant to do, and the part that is, is left unused when it finally does fire up.

It is apparently difficult to change this. What researchers are wondering is if this is related to the sudden explosion of learning disorders over the last 30 years or so. Is it correlated to forcing children to do something at a younger and younger age when that part of their brain hasn't yet "asked" for that kind of stimulation?

Of course, this is all very child-specific. Each child will be different as to when their brain "windows of opportunity" arise or fires, and it is the work of a good teacher to be able to observe when this occurs in each of their students. For example the Gifted and Talented child's brain apparently fires much sooner in the cognitive and abstract areas.

However, I would say that while meeting their needs in this area is very important, it would be also important to make sure they have well-rounded experiences to nurture emotional and physical growth too. That is lots of art and music and stories for emotional/soul development are needed; lots of time in nature to develop a relationship with the living world and to hone observation skills of touching, watching and listening, and lots of movement activities for physical development. The brain needs all of these things.

Types of stories are also considered extremely important in Waldorf - certain types of stories meet children's emotional development needs - such as fairy tales in first grade, fables in second, the Hebrew myths in third, Norse myths in fourth, Ancient Indian, Egyptian and Greek myths in fifth, etc. Eventually the myths move into historical stories and biographies, such as medieval stories and history in sixth, the Renaissance in seventh, and the revolutionary stories in eighth.

There is a following of human consciousness evolution here, in the bringing of stories. Steiner sees children passing through these same stages through their development. For example, a child of around 9 has similar consciousness as the ancient Hebrews and so are looking for more black and white stories of right and wrong such as we find in the Old Testament stories. They are wrestling with an awakening of self, an awareness of themselves as a separate individual which brings a lot of anxiety and fear, and also a need of fairness like Moses brought.

The fifth grade child, typically around age 11, is very Greek - starting to come into the realm of logic in a much more aware way; they become good arguers. They are also physically at their peak, just before the physical awkwardness of puberty - the "golden age" of childhood - just like the Greeks. The Greek Pentathlon at the end of fifth grade is a highlight for Waldorf students.

Sixth graders are very medieval, and seventh graders resonate with the Renaissance. Who but an eight grader, on the brink or already going through puberty, is more revolutionary? They love the stories/history of the French and American Revolutions during this time.

So back to the Waldorf method of writing and reading. Steiner recognized, as I said, that children's consciousness through their childhood development follows the same evolutionary consciousness development path of humanity. When they are born, their consciousness is very much like very early human beings first incarnating in earthly physical bodies - very dreamy.

Humans first began to think in "pictures" and indeed their first writings were pictographs. Waldorf begins teaching letters to children in first grade through telling fairy tale stories and creating pictographs of letters that are meaningful to the story. For example, I told a story about a prince on a journey and he passes a winding stream, goes over mountains, comes to a castle with flags flying over head, and such.

Then I used a chalkboard drawing of a scene from this story. The prince was drawn with one arm curved up and the hand above his eyes, as if looking out at his journey ahead, and one could see the P in this drawing of the prince. The mountains were drawn so the M is seen in them. In the winding stream one sees the S, in the flags flying over the castle one sees an F, etc. Each letter is then drawn by the children within the illustration, and then they orally learn a verse with lots of words that start with (or include) that letter to go with that picture. For example with the picture of the stream I had this verse, words and lines which came from the story I told:

Snaking, sparkling streams so blue,
With voices - "ssssss" - like slithering snakes.
Swiftly swirling down the mountains, and hillsides too,
Carving spectacular valleys with every serpentine sweep they make.

Or for M, the picture of the mountains:

Majestic mountains,
dressed in purple and green,
Peaks and valleys, more and more and more,
Millions of marvelous "M's" are seen!

This is how letters are introduced. Writing simple words comes next, so for nearly 100 years Waldorf has already been teaching reading through writing. Writing is movement oriented and stems from drawing, something kids naturally want to do. In fact, our very first 2-week block in first grade is Form Drawing - which includes not only drawing certain simple forms (starting with the line and curve, then circles and other simple shapes), but moving in them, making our bodies into the forms, reciting verses and songs about them, and observing them about us.

Where do you see a line in the classroom? - along the edge of the rug, along the table. Where do you see a curve? - the rocking chair rockers, etc. We bring all their physical senses into action in the world of forms and shapes. Form Drawing is unique to Waldorf schools and lays the foundation for learning to write, especially cursive. It also lays the foundation for geometry which is introduced in sixth grade.

Back to writing. At some point, for me it was the end of first grade year, they begin to write simple sentences from stories told. They learn to read from their own writing. We use no books or readers in first grade at all. Some Waldorf teachers do not use them in second. Instead, reading comes from pictorial, movement oriented, and drawing experiences. We walk forms and letters, to get it into the body. The growth of the body and brain together is so strong at this time. This is very important There is no sitting at desks for more than 20 minutes at a time, and much of the first grade work is not sitting at all.

All kids progress at writing/reading at their own individual stage, so these studies that try to prove how to get a large group of younger and younger kids to read earlier and earlier is so beside the point of how to meet each child's needs. They will successfully and happily learn to write and read, and learn to love reading and writing for life. The important goal is that every child learn to LOVE to write and read for life, not to learn to read at some arbitrarily set age. It will be a different age for each child.

On my own personal note, I was glad that my son, Ian, was not able to read at a young age all the offensive or disturbing billboards or bumper stickers, etc.!

Catherine K. Flynn
Kalispell, MT.

There you have two different views of the connection between writing and reading. While there are some similarities in that there is a direct connection between writing and reading that are outside of the contemporary main stream, the motivations of the two are quite different.

What do you think? Please let us know.

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Dick Kantenberger
Gifted Education Writer
Houston, TX 77024-4026
(713) 465-6077



  • Jo-Anne Gross 5 years ago

    I think Steiner is showing us the googly goop that has destroyed the public school system in all English speaking nations!

  • MJ 5 years ago

    Steiner's comments sound too much like the "whole language' approach that left so many of our students unable to read - it hard to "love' reading when you have to struggle to read the words.

  • tim-10-ber 5 years ago

    The kids I know coming out of the lone Waldorf school in our community thrive in our top academic, generally private schools.

    Too bad the government schools have not stuck with the basics of a strong academic curriculum mixed with arts, music and pe for the past century. Just think where this country would be today if they had, but sadly no-o-o-o...

  • Kate Gladstone 5 years ago

    Catherine K. Flynn writes:
    "I believe I read somewhere that Einstein did not read until 11. He was too busy allowing his hugely imaginative, creative mind to fully develop."

    Despite the pleasing legends created by his publicists, Einstein began school at age 5 (after a year's home tutoring) and read fluently before age 7 (see sources below). Competence here, years before a proclaimed "ideal" age of 11, plainly left him as creative and intelligent as anyone who now declares him an example.

    Sources for Einstein's school career:

    Rosenkranz, Ze’ev (2005), Albert Einstein – Derrière l’image, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, p. 29, ISBN 3-03823-182-7

    Sowell, Thomas (2001), The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late, Basic Books, pp. 89–150, ISBN 0-465-08140-1

    Dudley Herschbach, "Einstein as a Student," Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, USA, page 3, web:

  • Bob Rose 5 years ago

    I hope your message gets through, but right now the only ones listening are the private schools, and then not all of them.

    Dick Kantenberger
    Gifted Education Writer

  • Kate Gladstone 5 years ago

    Research shows that the fastest and most legible handwriters avoid cursive. Highest-speed, highest-legibility handwriters join only some, not all, of the letters -- making the easiest joins, skipping the rest -- and tend to use print-like shapes for letters whose printed and cursive forms disagree.

    Kate Gladstone
    Director, World Handwriting Contest
    Founder, Handwriting Repair/Handwriting That Works
    Co-Designer, BETTER LETTERS handwriting improvement app for the iPhone, iPodTouch, and iPad

  • Mark 5 years ago

    MJ wrote, "Steiner's comments sound too much like the "whole language' approach that left so many of our students unable to read - it hard to 'love' reading when you have to struggle to read the words."

    As opposed to non-whole language approaches in use today that has produced results just as bad if not worse?

    Here's a thought: Stop experimenting on children with the next newest educational fad, and get back to teaching.

  • Dick Kantenberger 5 years ago

    Steiner's Waldorf method has been very successful throughout the world over the last 90 years with some 1000 schools, and a Waldorf education is rather expensive. I personally know a number of university professors who specialize in this field and believe that the Waldorf method is the model that public schools should emulate. They also like Montessori and most gifted and talented schools as well.

  • Bob Rose 1 year ago

    If you would like to have a three-page MS Word file attachment describing our unpublished on-line K-1 teacher study, please email me at

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